Dear Prudence

Happy Birthday, You’re Going to Die

Prudie advises a letter writer whose elderly friend was ambushed with an end-of-life form at a party.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at

Q. A Really, Really Bad Birthday Party: This weekend I got back from what had to be the most disturbing birthday party I’ve ever been to. It was for a former co-worker, who just turned 75. “Jean” is in good health, isn’t on any medications, and walks five miles a day. I was shocked beyond belief when her daughter “Leslie” brought out an advanced care planning kit she’d printed off the Internet, the sort of thing where you can fill out if you want to be resuscitated, intubated, etc., if you could no longer speak for yourself. Leslie then insisted her mother fill this form out right at the party, on the table where the cake and presents were. Jean was visibly upset, looked at the forms, then said she’d fill them in later. Her daughter began to fight with her, and the party ended not long afterward. I was horrified about the entire situation. Then today I was shocked when I got an email from another guest suggesting that I send an email to Jean that would say Jean was the one with the problem, and that I totally supported Leslie. How do I respond to the email? And how do I say something to Jean that would let her know I support her, without implying her daughter is crazy?

A: I think this could be the beginning of a useful trend. Think of the possibilities for the surprise vasectomy party or the “just sign the divorce papers” party. I’m guessing that Leslie already filled in the “Do not resuscitate” portions of the forms so that her mother didn’t have to ponder a lingering death while Leslie tapped her fingers waiting for her mother to flatline. You can simply delete the correspondence from the other guest—although it’s concerning that Leslie seems to have co-conspirators. As for Jean, it really depends on your relationship with her. If you don’t generally keep in touch, I think nothing needs to be said. But if you have a friendship beyond having been co-workers, you can give her a call to say you’re sorry the party ended on an abrupt note, that it was wonderful to see her, and you hope she’s doing OK.

Q. Beyond Discipline: I have four grandchildren by my two oldest daughters and their husbands ranging in age from 1 to 9 years old. They live about five hours away, and I visit frequently. While visiting last week, we had a sleepover at my hotel. My oldest grandson, who will be 6, exclaimed that he was so happy to get a break from his mom and dad yelling at him all the time. I pulled him aside and asked if his mom or dad ever hit him, and he nodded yes. I asked who hit him and he said his dad. He said his dad also “pulls my ears a lot, very hard and it hurts.” I have been so depressed and distressed about this and want to bring this up with my daughter and her husband, but I don’t know how to broach this with them. I alluded to the yelling part and my daughter stated that it’s because he hits his younger brother all the time. My gut reaction was to reply that he’s angry and acting out because he’s being, in my opinion, abused, but kept my mouth shut. I need to broach this with them and I don’t know how. Please help, this little guy is so bright and sweet.

A: This is a torturous situation because if you were to say that you’ve heard about the hitting and the ear pulling, likely there would be some hide tanning in your grandson’s future because he ratted out his parents to you. How disturbing to have raised a daughter without violence and find that she’s allowing it with her own child. Indeed, the older boy may be acting out, but there’s something very wrong in his household. I’ve heard from other grandparents in this situation, and if you tread too heavily, you risk being cut out of your grandchildren’s lives. I hope you have a decent relationship with your daughter. Since you say you visit frequently, hang around the house. If you see instances of your grandson misbehaving and his parents overreacting, that could be an opening for you. You need to have a calm, nonjudgmental discussion with your daughter. You acknowledge that raising kids is tough, and that “Daniel” can be a handful. But say he is a good boy who needs gentleness and gentle discipline, and you’re concerned that corporal punishment is counterproductive. If the conversation goes well, you could suggest parenting classes, especially one focused on discipline. This is a long-term issue, and most of all, you want to stay in your grandson’s life and be a source of encouragement and, if necessary, solace for him.

Q. Should I Tell Him He Might Have Accidentally Eaten Pork?: I brought homemade cupcakes and fudge in for my co-workers to celebrate July Fourth. A co-worker asked if my marshmallow frosting had gluten in it because he doesn’t eat pork for religious reasons. I was puzzled since I was sure gluten had to do with wheat, not pork, and I advised him not to eat the cupcakes just to be safe. So, he had a piece of fudge instead. Later, when I was talking about this with one of my friends, she suggested he might be confusing gluten with gelatin. Now I’m horrified because I know my fudge contained Jell-O pudding mix. I feel so bad for causing him to accidentally break religious rules and I don’t know what to do now to rectify it.

A: The fudge has been masticated, digested, and returned to fudge. Surely your co-worker enjoyed your little holiday treat, and there’s no reason to give him indigestion now. (And if your co-worker is kosher, it’s not that he’s avoiding pork in the cupcakes—there isn’t any—it’s that he’s not allowed to mix dairy and meat. Gelatin is derived from cows, so if cupcakes have butter and gelatin in them, they are verboten.)

Q. Bad Aunt or Good Stepmother?: I’ve been divorced for a few years and have stayed friendly with both my former stepdaughters, who are now lovely teenagers. I am going overseas for three months for work and have invited both of them to stay with me at my expense. Both of them are straight-A students and have been studying the local language for years. Both of their parents are OK with this. The problem is my sister wants me to do the same for her kids, who are spoiled, rude, and have had recent run-ins with the law. I am not comfortable with being responsible for them. How exactly can I get my sister off my back without coming out and saying, “Your kids are monsters”?

A: Presumably you mentioned that your former stepchildren are going to visit you during your sojourn, which gave your sister her great idea for giving herself a break from her offspring. But all you have to say is that you can’t do it because the time your stepchildren will be visiting is the only free time you’ll be able to carve out of your work assignment. Then if your sister starts in about “real family” or suggests you don’t have to supervise her kids, you just smile and say, “I’m sorry, a visit just won’t work this time.”

Q. Re: Eaten Pork?: Jell-O pudding mix does not contain gelatin. Gelatin does sometimes come from pigs, rather than cows, however. My guess is that if he is worried specifically about pork, then he is Muslim.

A: Thanks for the clarification—I thought gelatin was a bovine derivative, but you’re right, it can be from pigs. And agreed if this co-worker is trying to follow Jewish or Muslim dietary laws, he needs some brushing up on the distinction between gluten and gelatin. Also, that’s good news about the pudding mix. Now there’s really nothing to say!

Q. Displaying Human Remains: I work as a staff member at a natural sciences education center. My boss, who has some eccentric interests outside of work (including anthropology), recently brought in a real, articulated human skeleton to display in his office. Apparently it belonged to his grandfather, who was a doctor and used it as a teaching tool. He set it up so that it is posed as if it is sitting casually on a chair in the corner of his office. I haven’t said anything to him yet, but I am super disturbed by his attitude toward displaying these remains. We are a science education center, but we focus on environmental science, and the ethics of displaying human remains as office decor (along with that fact that he posed the skeleton in kind of a jokey way) is putting a really bad taste in my mouth. Should I talk to him directly about my feelings? Or lodge a complaint with HR?

A: You work at a science center, so I would hope this could be something that could be discussed with your boss. This is an old family heirloom, one he probably grew up seeing and “playing” with, so it likely hasn’t occurred to your boss that setting up the skeleton as if he’s just hanging out waiting to go to lunch could be seen as offensive. But if your boss is not someone you could have that discussion with, then it’s fair to take this to HR, not in the spirit of rebuking him, but to raise the question about human remains and their respectful display.

Q. Re: Eaten Pork?: I keep kosher. If I were about to accidentally take a bite of some pork or meat-and-milk derivative, I’d want someone to grab it out of my hand. However, if I’d already eaten and digested the item, I’d rather not know of my mistake. I’d rather not feel guilty about something it’s too late to change, though I also hope God would forgive a dietary faux pas committed in good faith.

A: Thanks for this insight. And again, I wish I’d double-checked on the source of gelatin. Who knew that when my grandmother made her famous carrot, walnut, and lime Jell-O mold we were eating pork!

Q. Re: Bad Birthday: While I agree that it was pretty outrageous to pull out that form at the birthday party, I do remember my own frustration at my parents’ total refusal to discuss or plan anything for their eventual demise. My father especially felt that he was never going to die, so there was no need to talk about anything. As a result, when it came time to deal with these issues—he was on a feeding tube and breathing apparatus, my mother had lingering infections that caused comalike conditions—I had to deal with all of this on my own, with no idea of what my parents’ wishes might be. I am not excusing the daughter’s poor choice of timing for pulling out the paperwork. But if she feels as frustrated as I did over this sensitive subject, I think I can sympathize.

A: I agree that this is a discussion everyone should have. Not having it leads to the kind of lingering, excruciating, and costly death you describe. However, if a parent won’t face his or her eventual demise, the way to get the parent to see reality is not to present a birthday cake at a party along with a form saying “No feeding tube.”

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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